Book review - Olga by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Charlotte Collins)

Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel about an ill-fated couple is quieter, more reflective than his international bestseller The Reader. Olga, an orphan, is brought up by her aloof grandmother in Pomerania, where she falls in love with her aristocratic neighbour and childhood friend, Herbert.

Olga dreams of becoming a teacher and educates herself in order to be able to attend the local training college. Herbert is an adventurer who yearns for vast empty spaces. His parents disapprove of their relationship and threaten to cut Herbert off from his inheritance if he marries Olga, while his snobbish sister conspires to have her transferred to a school in East Prussia: “the end of the world”.

The couple carry on regardless, spending more time apart than together, as Herbert indulges his wanderlust until his disappearance in the Arctic in 1913. Olga remains in Tilsit, finding solace with her neighbours’ son Eik, who she regales with Herbert’s adventures, until the second world war drives her west.

Schlink deals swiftly with Germany’s colonial aspirations in South-West Africa, the Herero genocide and its role in two world wars, while Olga’s life is related in careful, unadorned prose. She is the antithesis of Herbert - a woman defined by her love of education, unable to reach her potential because of her circumstances - and Schlink clearly wants us to admire her fidelity and calm resolve.

By the 1950s, Olga, now deaf, works as a seamstress for a family in south-west Germany and cares for their son, Ferdinand. They remain friends until her death and Ferdinand is sole heir to her modest savings. Some years later, he unearths the letters she sent to Herbert c/o Tromso’s poste restante.

We guess the major reveals will come in the novel’s epistolary section. The letters confirm Olga’s stoicism, her love of simple pleasures, and contain two secrets which, frustratingly, Schlink has already given away. Olga is a poignant portrait of a woman out of step with her time, but too predictable to truly satisfy.

Originally published by the Observer